As a kid growing up in rural Virginia, I recognized the complexity of life as a Black person in America but I was, at the same time, blessed with so many heroes, past and present. Just as the physical beauty of the region always stood out with its tall trees, lush vegetation and beautiful creeks, rivers, swamps and streams, Black excellence stood as beautiful as the tidewater landscape.
Etched into this ecosystem we nevertheless struggled to piece together the extremely peculiar relationships and understandings so amazingly diverse and beautiful while, at the same time, painful and haunting. I think about my father, who as a kid was not allowed to walk on one side of the street but would also several decades later be appointed magistrate of that same county.
I think about Harriet Tubman, whose devotion to freedom was so remarkable that she risked her own hard-earned freedom to liberate others. But I also think about the brilliance of Duke Ellington, a man so indebted to the segregated Black community that embraced him in his youth. Or Louis Armstrong, whose immense talent took him from learning jazz in the brothels of Storyville in New Orleans to an ambassador of national prominence.
But Black history is also about the people who are unknown. Just as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery is dedicated to soldiers whose remains are still unidentified, Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the unknown and unrecognized Black heroes past and present.
The Black man who endured so many indignities to ensure that he kept the job he had so that his family could survive. The Black mother who endured separation from her family during slavery. Many of us have probably encountered or heard about these unknown heroes.
In my old Black Baptist church that met only two Sundays a month, I always looked forward to Black History Month. It was a time to celebrate Black perseverance and achievement.
Sometimes we would have programs where we play-acted great people of the past. Though we loved our gospel music, during February the music was different. My mother was the choir director and she would play spirituals such as “Did You Know” and “Rise up Shepherd and Follow.” African American spirituals connected us to our past. They inspired us while helping us celebrate our unknown heroes.
My congregation found great inspiration as if we were transported back to a time when our ancestors walked the Earth. I remember wondering what the older members of the church were thinking by listening to these spirituals? Did they think about their parents or grandparents? Or were they thinking of their own experiences?
I have struggled over how to interpret this history — the beautiful and the disturbing. We need to dedicate ourselves to doing both. Growing up, I now realize that I found strength and perspective from both. I was able to walk the paths that my slave ancestors once walked. I saw the graves in the back of our family’s land that did not have a tombstone, nor was any explanation provided for the absence of a tombstone.
But, at the same time, as I walked these same pathways I came to understand the possibilities of life through how those same ancestors seized the limited opportunities provided to them once freed.
Black History Month is so great of an opportunity that I would be selfish to not share it. For our nation, it gives us a chance to look into our collective past. It is an opportunity to recognize that even though race relations could still improve — Black achievement is stunning and continuous. It is a gift. We can all celebrate and learn from the struggles, joys and celebrations of the past. As we strive to be a better people, our past mistakes, errors and even the things we got right can push us forward.
To celebrate Black History Month we must do more than highlight the tremendous obstacles African Americans have faced. We should listen to the messages found in the spirituals, work songs and blues. But there is also the exuberance of jazz and the sophistication and optimism that springs from the African American experience, too.
In our diverse communities, churches, organizations and political spaces, Black History Month is a chance to be inspired by this history as it offers us a window into the meaning of America. We can appreciate the strength of a people who refused to be destroyed and who fought and loved their way into our nation’s story.
What more American story can exist than this?